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String of pharmacy robberies hits Omaha area; thieves aim to sell stolen drugs on the street

'This really raises the stakes because somebody's got so much so quickly'
Posted at 6:53 PM, Feb 24, 2022

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — From late January to mid-February, 14 Omaha area pharmacies were broken into, according to the Nebraska State Patrol and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Omaha Police reported eight in the city alone this year, all in a three-day span from Feb. 10 to 13.

Springfield Drug, a pharmacy in Springfield a few miles south of Omaha, was broken into overnight. Owner Keith Hentzen discovered it when he arrived on the morning of Feb. 11. His store is known for its vintage feel and old-fashioned soda fountain.

"When the alarm goes off in here, it hurts your ears," said Hentzen.

Then, they took off, he said.

They got away with a bottle and a half of promenthazine with codeine, a cough syrup. Though Hentezen said each bottle costs him "under a hundred dollars," on a black market it can go for thousands.

But some Omaha pharmacies had more stolen. Medicine Man, a pharmacy near 156th and Pacific Streets, saw drugs worth nearly $5,000 stolen, according to a police report. The store was broken into overnight on the early morning of Feb. 10 or late on Feb. 9.

Kubat Pharmacy, near 50th and Center Streets, was broken into twice, about 48 hours apart during the same three-day span, according to police reports. Each time, many drugs were stolen.

"We see a lot of them going into places they think they can get into really fast and come out of, you know, really quickly," said Justin King, Special Agent In Charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency's Omaha Field Division.

He said 20,000 doses of drugs were stolen from the 14 robberies. The thieves aim to "sell it on the street," he said.

"We've seen an uptick, a gradual uptick across the country for the last probably ten years," King said.

He said another way to take from a pharmacy is through fraud, like doctor shopping — the fraudulent practice where someone misrepresents themselves and collects prescriptions from several providers. Now, theft is becoming more common.

"This really raises the stakes because somebody's got so much so quickly and they can put it on the street," he said.

Tyler Kroenke, a Nebraska State Patrol investigator in the pharmaceutical diversion group, and a task force officer for the DEA, said the string of robberies is more significant than anything he's seen in his three years on the job.

"I would say Nebraska has been more on the fraud side as far as the way they would divert from pharmacies," he said. "And now we're seeing an uptick in pharmacy break-ins."

But both King and Kroenke want to make clear: no one should assume a drug they're being sold illegally is from a pharmacy. Many are fraudulent and laced with fentanyl, and one pill can kill. That includes Adderall and Xanax, as well as opioids, Kroenke said.

The robberies help fuel the opioid epidemic and more than 100,000 overdose deaths across the county in 2021, King said. And when it's not killing, addiction itself is ruining lives, he said.

"How many other people didn't get to realize their potential in life (due to addiction)?" King said. "They didn't become a doctor or a journalist, a teacher."

Hentzen said pharmacists "have to find better ways of preventing this from occurring, better security systems."

He asked that people check on pharmacies as they cross them, especially late at night or in the early morning.

"The way I get through this to remember that no one got killed," Hentzen said. "No one got hurt. And you know, they came in, they broke a bunch of stuff and left, and I'm happy. I'm still alive."

The DEA, the Nebraska State Patrol, and local police agencies are all investigating the string of robberies.

There's a national hotline available for people and families to call for help with substance abuse and mental health disorders. The SAMHSA hotline can be reached at 1-800-662-HELP.

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